Originally published in FUSE, July 2012
What is it with our obsession with conscience votes? Whenever big social policy changes are mooted, conscience votes are brought up from those on the left and the right as a way to deal with them.
This is happening in the marriage equality debate now. In the lead up the ALP conference last year many marriage equality campaigners advocated for a conscience vote as compromise solution. Now, instead of demanding that the Coalition change their formal position on equal marriage many are instead using a conscience vote as the main point of campaigns. For example, in February this year Australian Marriage Equality (AME) began a campaign pushing the Coalition for a conscience vote on the issue. AME national convenor said of the campaign:
“Soon their (The Coalition’s) party room will debate whether they should have a conscience vote on marriage equality, which is essential if marriage equality is to pass Parliament.”
Yet, when looking at these sorts of campaigns, it is really important to ask the question, are conscience votes actually a good tactic for social justice activists to pursue?
The idea of a conscience vote seems to be synonymous with social change. Even though they often have a bigger impact than social issues we never demand conscience votes on major economic reforms or environmental regulations. This is based, primarily through conservative religious thought, on the idea that these sorts of social issues are somehow a matter of ‘personal conscience’, whereas other issues are more based around political ideology and Government management.
And this is where the biggest problem with them arises. By pursuing conscience votes on major social issues, we let politicians get away with the idea that they can vote against social policies and still have a conscience. Instead of saying it is simply unconscionable for people to vote against these sorts of changes, we are giving politicians an ability to save face.
But, I hear you say, ‘you’re being unrealistic. Conscience votes are our best chance of success.’ That of course has to be a consideration, but at some point we have to ask ‘what is the cost of our short-term success?’
We need to be wary of building campaigns that although gain short-term successes build on the idea that one can be queerphobic and still have a conscience. If by fighting for a conscience vote we buy into conservative ideas that homosexuality is an issue of conscience is it really worth it?
I’m not saying that we never engage with debates around conscience votes. Sometimes we are stuck with the reality of them and we often have to deal with the parameters set by those in Parliament to get the wins we need. Yet, to think that a conscience vote is a good result, or even worse to demand it as the first point of call, we can really be screwing our movement over. When we start demanding conscience votes what we are doing is saying ‘it’s okay homophobes/racists/misogynists etc., you’re allowed to vote against us and we’re even giving you an out in the public by letting you say it’s a matter of conscience’.
In running campaigns it is important to think about the bigger picture as well as the short-term goals. Whilst legislation such as marriage equality may be seen as an important next step, we need to ensure we don’t throw everything out to ensure its passage. Given the ‘out’ conscience votes give politicians, and in turn the community, to be socially conservative therefore, we need to question their use in our campaigns. Instead of advocating for a conscience vote, we should instead be saying that voting against these issues is simply unconscionable.